Hawaii’s public schools will welcome back students Aug. 4 with new protocols and a mix of traditional in-school instruction and distance learning in a move to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The state Department of Education on Thursday unveiled a reopening plan that aims to keep the standard 180 days of instruction for the 2020-21 school year while upholding academic standards and maintaining healthy learning environments.
DOE officials demonstrated some of the plan’s new protocols Thursday morning during a media event at Kapolei Middle School, where classroom desks were spaced farther apart and some seats were marked off-limits in the cafeteria.
“The first priority is safety. We’ll never compromise on that,” said Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, who noted, among other things, that masks will now be mandatory on all school buses.
Later in the day, however, the school reopening plan came under harsh criticism from the leadership of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. In particular, the union’s leaders condemned a provision that allows desks to be spaced only 3 feet apart when students are facing the same direction in the classroom.
“Placing student desks only 3 feet apart is ludicrous and dangerous and puts our keiki, their families and our teachers at risk,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that school desks be 6 feet apart when feasible to reduce risk.
Rosenlee predicted the 3-foot separation could lead to the eventual shutdown of the entire school system, leaving it to implement 100% virtual learning once again.
What’s more, he said, it could exacerbate the DOE’s teacher shortage by driving away personnel who don’t want to risk contracting COVID-19. He estimated that 30% to 40% of teachers are at risk either because they have an underlying condition or are older and therefore more vulnerable.
“Teachers are not sacrificial lambs in the desire to open our schools,” he said.
Rosenlee urged teachers and parents to “inundate” the state Board of Education’s meeting Thursday and demand that desks be required to be kept a minimum of 6 feet apart.
Earlier in the day, schools Superintendent Christine Kishimoto noted the department already achieved consensus with the HSTA in regard to the plan.
Answering questions in one of Kapolei’s classrooms with desks spaced farther apart, Kishimoto said various models of school operation were devised for the schools during months of preparation.
The models include 100% face-to-face learning, where all students are on campus daily for instruction, and various blended configurations with both in-person learning and structured online learning.
Priority for daily in-school instruction will be given to K-2 students and vulnerable students who need extra support, officials said.
Each school will inform families about their selected models in the coming days.
However, parents who prefer virtual-only learning will be able to access the department’s E-School for students in grades 6-12. Officials are still exploring virtual options for elementary students, Kishimoto said.
In addition, the department is preparing for the possibility of school closures by, among other things, upgrading internet accessibility and expanding course offerings for credits toward graduation, she said.
Consulting with the state Department of Health, the DOE created base-line recommendations for schools that include:
>> A distance of 6 feet between students and staff members should be maintained whenever possible.
>> Face coverings should be worn by employees, students and visitors, especially when physical distancing is difficult or impossible.
>> Meals will be consumed in classrooms or at designated outdoor locations or in cafeterias under distancing precautions.
>> Windows should be opened for more natural air circulation when possible.
>> Employees, students and visitors should be screened for overt signs of illness.
>> Cleaning supplies, soap, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer will be made available to schools and offices.
>> Campuses, classrooms and offices will be cleaned and disinfected frequently, with high-touch surfaces cleaned and disinfected at least daily.
>> For on-campus learning, the same group of students should be kept with the same staff throughout the day — all day for younger students and as much as possible for older students.
State Health Director Bruce Anderson said keeping students in the same groups will create “ohana bubbles” that aim to cut down on the potential spread of COVID-19, make contact tracing easier and possibly prevent an entire school from being shut down.
Kishimoto said Hawaii’s schools, as usual, will be the first statewide system to launch the new school year, and the entire country will be watching how it goes.
With Hawaii having the lowest infection rate in the U.S., Hawaii’s schools are in a “terrific position” to reopen, Anderson said.
“We’re a test case for the nation,” he said. “This is all new territory. We’re learning as we go along, and we can make adjustments as necessary.”